Monday, September 11, 2006

Wonkitorial: Dept. Of Ed Retreats On Teacher Quality

For all of those who thought that the federally-imposed No Child Left Behind Act would ensure that every kid has a "highly qualified teacher" in the classroom, US Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has some bad news for you:
Changing course, the Education Department will allow states to count teachers as highly qualified even under standards that may do little to ensure quality.

Federal law allows veteran teachers to be considered highly qualified under factors that states choose, such as job evaluations, teaching awards or service on school committees.

The department in May ordered states to phase out that system for most teachers. Watchdog groups and the department itself say many states were using this system to set weak, improper standards.

Yet Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has pulled back, telling states this week in a letter that they now are "strongly encouraged," though not required, to stop using the method to rate teachers.

The change could affect tens of thousands of teachers who have not met the conditions of the No Child Left Behind Act. Otherwise, teachers would have to demonstrate competence by holding academic majors or passing tests in every subject they teach.

The department says timing is the reason for the change.

Coming up with a regulation to enforce the change could take a year or more, department spokesman Chad Colby said Thursday. Instead, the agency plans to ask Congress to make the change when it renews the law. That is scheduled to happen next year, but may be delayed.

A lobbyist for the nation's largest teachers union said department leaders are turning to Congress because "they don't have the authority to do what they wanted to do."

The National Education Association considers Spellings' letter a victory.

The union opposed phasing out an option that could help teachers in many circumstances, such as when teachers change districts or assignments. The NEA also says the law protects the option anyway.

Lobbyist Joel Packer said the department for years has issued inconsistent guidance on what states can do. "I think they've created part of the problem, just a real level of confusion," he said.

Most states have used the option in question _ called the "high objective uniform state standard of evaluation," or HOUSSE. It was meant to offer flexibility to veteran teachers.

Yet in her letter, Spellings admonishes some states for allowing teachers to be deemed highly qualified without making them prove they know their subjects.

"I urge you to re-examine your HOUSSE procedures to ensure that this is not the case in your state," she wrote to state school chiefs. "Our students and parents deserve no less."

President Bush's education law says teachers are highly qualified when they have a bachelor's degree, a state license and proven competency in every subject they teach.

States were supposed to have a highly qualified teacher in every core academic class by the end of the last school year. None met that deadline, so each must try again this year.

About 90 percent of teachers are highly qualified, states say, although numbers vary widely across the states.

Meanwhile, about half the states are phasing out their use of a uniform state standard to rate teachers, Colby said. But Packer said that trend was driven in part by urging from the department, and that the latest letter may encourage states to keep the option.
There have been a number of efforts over the years to mandate higher standards for classroom teachers and thereby improve the quality of instruction.

What this has usually meant is an increase in the number of teacher education courses that a teacher takes as well as an increase in the quantity of paperwork that the perspective teacher must submit before entering the classroom.

In the end, most of these efforts to ensure "highly qualified teachers" fail to make any meaningful impact.

The reasons why they fail are varied, but a major one is that in order to avert a shortage of classroom teachers, (thereby increasing pressures to raise teaching salaries) states end-up watering-down standards and employing a variety of stop-gap schemes in order to get "someone with a pulse" into each public school classroom.

These schemes range from "emergency-credentialed" interns and the employment of "long-term substitutes" to the active recruitment of experienced teachers in the third-world (the Philippines, for example) who would be willing to re-locate to the United States.

The reasoning behind all these "stop-gap measures," of course, are that all-too-many districts and states are unwilling (or unable) to pay the sorts of salaries that are necessary in order to attract the highest calibre people into our public school classrooms.

In a free-market economy, the only way to obtain the highest quality talent is to pay for it.

My guess is that as the federal government continues to increase the pressure on all 50 states to "hold teachers accountable" for making sure that 100% of America's kids are able to read, do math, and know science (at or above grade level proficiency) by 2014, even more teachers will leave the teaching profession in order to pursue other career options.

And who can blame them for leaving? And who would want to enter a relatively low-pay/low-status/high stress/no-promotion-based-upon-merit McJob that does feature continually increasing performance expectations while offering salary structures that don't permit employee mobility or even keep-up with inflation?

In no other profession (outside those of airline pilot or undertaker, perhaps) is a standard of 100% effectiveness not only expected but, by 2014, required.

There will always be a significant number of folks who serve students in the classroom for idealistic reasons. They are to be commended. But our country is in urgent need of 100s of thousands of well-qualified, dedicated, and hard-working teachers who are willing eager to work with students on a day-to-day basis.

If those ivory-tower EduCrats who lurk inhabit the plush offices of Washington and the various state capitals truly want to recruit the "best and the brightest" into our public school classrooms, then something needs to be done to make public school teaching the desirable and fulfilling career that it ought to be.
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